War For Water In Chile: Avocados, Deregulation And Climate Change

War for water in Chile: avocados, deregulation and climate change

She is not sure if it was in 1984 or 1985, but Lorena still remembers a conversation between her parents in which she heard how they commented that a part of the river in which she played every day had been given “in perpetuity.” She was little then, she was 11 or 12 years old, she didn’t understand much, but she remembers that that was “the first sense of deprivation” she felt. “We lived on the river, we were from morning to afternoon, there the social fabric was built: we washed, we ate, we bartered food. The river was everything and that marked me a lot,” he says.

Lorena Donaire is 48 years old and lives in La Ligua, a small rural municipality in the Petorca province, in the Valparaíso region, about 200 kilometers north of Santiago. His family, of peasant origin, lost the land and the plot due to the lack of water.

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“I lived in the first person the dispossession of the lands of my mother, grandfather and uncles. We grew lettuces, cucumbers, apricots, papayas, peaches, beans … until we were captured by the river and we were never able to bathe again. The complete depredation of the territory arrived. : deforested hills and native forests, garbage and landowners who appropriated the place and piped the waters, “says Lorena, today an activist for the right to water in the organization Modatima (Movement for the Defense of Access to Water, Land and Protection enviroment).

The province of Petorca is one of the most affected by the severe drought that has caused both climate change, which has been hitting this area of ​​Chile for more than a decade, and the activity of avocado or avocado agro-export companies –as stated knows this fruit in the country– and that they sell mainly to Europe, the United States, China and Argentina. According the Office of Agricultural Studies and Policies, Petorca is the second province with the largest cultivation of this fruit in Chile.

Starting in 2000, large landowners attracted by the weather conditions settled in the area and expanded avocado monocultures. Each kilo of this product requires between 1,600 and 2,000 liters of water, depending on The Water Footprint Network, which the businessmen obtain from the underground waters of the two rivers that cross the province: the Petorca and La Ligua. The surface of both has become a bed of stones and grass.

The first was declared exhausted in 1997 and since 2012 it has been decreed that the basin is “water scarcity zone“La Ligua dried up in 2004. The battle for water is fought between small farmers, locals and activists in defense of water, on the one hand, and large agricultural producers, on the other.

The University of Arizona Water Management Legal Expert, Carl bauer, has highlighted the case of Chile as “paradigmatic” for its “remarkable focus on the free market” and for being among the least regulated in the world. Although the 1981 Water Code, drawn up during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), considers the resource as a national good for public use, on the other hand, the same text keeps it subject to “rights of use” of individuals “for their use, enjoyment and free disposal.”

This status is reinforced in the Constitution, also written during the dictatorship, which recognizes the right to private property “in its various species over all kinds of tangible or intangible property.” The text specifies: “The rights of individuals over the w aters, recognized or constituted in accordance with the law, will grant their owners ownership over them.”

In practice, ownership of water is specified through the granting of “water use rights” (established in liters / second) that the General Water Directorate (DGA) gives free and perpetual to the people who request them. .

These rights certify that a person is the owner of the water (surface or underground) of a specific part of a river basin and are registered in a cadastre and in the property registry. When the DGA denies the requests, the alternative is to acquire rights in the private water market, where a liter per second ranges between 13,000 and 20,000 euros. Thus, the water can be sold, rented or even speculated on.

In the province of Petorca, more than 2,000 people who live in rural areas and do not have drinking water services receive their water from tanker trucks. Until a few years ago they were supplied from wells, but when they dried up, the communities had to be assisted with transporting water for human consumption.

This is how Zoila Quiroz, a 72-year-old retiree, lives with her family in Quebrada de Castro, three kilometers from the urban area of ​​Petorca. Together with eight other families, they are supplied with water from a 10,000-liter pond that a cistern truck from the Petorca town hall is in charge of filling twice a week.

“I have lived here for 40 years. Before there was a lot of water in the canal and in the creek, we had animals and vegetables. I was going to sell milk to the town, we had grapes and made wine.” Today he only has chickens and he stopped harvesting his vegetables, which he now has to buy.

While he reuses domestic water for irrigation, his neighbor, owner of one of the largest horticultural farms in the area, waters hundreds of hectares of avocados and maintains two water accumulators that look like swimming pools in the middle of a dry field. The hill looks like a chess board: in green the lands of those who have water and money, and in brown, those who suffer from drought and precariousness.

Lack of water particularly affects women. “They are the ones who have to define what is washed today – clothes or dishes – because there is no water for everything; who in the family showers; or how ailments are managed”, says Donarie, founder of Mujeres Modatima.

As they are not owners of water rights, they do not participate in the discussions of formal water organizations recognized by law. “The women here lived on what the river provided: some took prawns or trout and others sold herbs, but with the dispossession they went from having these trades to being temporary workers of the avocado businessmen. [aguacate]”says Donaire.

In rural areas, residents have organized themselves into Rural Potable Water (APR) committees and cooperatives, a kind of informal neighborhood councils that extend the sanitation network to rural and isolated areas. “The communities come together and request that a well be fitted out for them. They guarantee access to water for rural or isolated communities that have been excluded from water management,” says Donaire. In the province of Petorca there are five, but only 44% of the RWAs in Chile have exploitation rights of water and legally constituted wells.

“The three APR wells have been without water for many years because the landowners dried them up,” denounces Verónica Vilches, president of the Potable Water Committee of San José, a small rural town in Petorca. As an alternative, it receives the water through another community that obtains it from a higher part of the basin that has not yet dried up.

A decade ago his family also had to change their livelihood: “We had no water for the animals and we had to let them go. It was a very painful shame. We also had no water in the canal and the land dried up. “Today she is one of the defenders of the right to water in the area, for which she has suffered threats and violence in the territory:” They have become a daily issue, but I try not to give them a place because, if not, I could not fight for it. ”

Chilean law contravenes the United Nations resolution of 2010, ratified by the country itself, which recognizes access to drinking water and sanitation as a human right. Since the end of the dictatorship, attempts have been made to reform the Water Code on at least eight occasions. The last proposal was presented in 2011 and has spent almost 11 years in the drawers of Congress.

Recently, progress has been made in its processing and this week the commission in charge of reviewing the text left it ready for voting in both the House and the Senate. The new Water Code could come into force before the change of government that will take place on March 11. Among other guarantees, the proposal establishes human consumption, sanitation and subsistence as a priority, and ends the concessions of rights “in perpetuity” (although not retroactively) to set them at 30 years.

Beyond the new legislation, now the debate over water will be installed with force in the Constitutional Convention that draws up the new Magna Carta of Chile. Access to water is one of the main social demands and both constituent groups and individuals and organizations in society have promoted proposals to regulate it.

“I have every confidence that the new Constitution can transform dignified access to water,” says Constituent Deputy Carolina Vilches, who was elected precisely by the Petorca district and other municipalities affected by the drought. She, along with other environmental activists in the area, managed to reach the Convention with the aim of promoting a change in the model in access to water: “It is a problem of a political and structural nature and we have an obligation to address it. much about environmental suffering, the invisibility of communities and the imposition of dispossession “.

In the Valparaíso region, they have taken advantage of the Chilean electoral year, in which all popularly elected positions were renewed, to elect various activists to political positions, such as councilors or regional governors. The battle for water is now also played out in institutions.

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